Socialization…’Till I’m Blue in the Face

In the middle of a conversation with a daycare client the other day, I was interrupted with, “…I know, I know. Socialization, socialization, socialization.” The client rolled her eyes as she said this, and we both laughed. She’s heard my mantra many times and she knows I’m passionate about it.

What she might not fully understand is why I’m so passionate about it. Well, the main reason is that proper puppy socialization and continued socialization during adolescence and adulthood is at best a matter of whether or not a dog will stay in his home, and at worst a matter of life and death.

I get calls from people all the time who tell me, “I have a 6 month old puppy who needs to be socialized.” I am not at all diplomatic in informing them that a.) their dog is not a puppy anymore (I don’t care how it acts or how cute it is, it’s a teenager!) and b.) they have missed their opportunity for beginning socialization. I am blunt in letting them know that anything we might do now is remedial socialization. We must now remedy the lack of socializaion.

To say that we’re going to start socializing a dog at the age of 6 months is like keeping a child away from others for the first 14 years or so of his life, then deciding it’s time to send him to public school. He simply will not have the skills, confidence or ability to interact in an acceptable manner. Can you see that it would be much more difficult to learn these things at 14 than it would have been at the age of 3, 4 or 5?

Here’s a true story.

A client was referred to me for help in house training and teaching basic manners to her 12 week old puppy. These are the cases I look forward to, easy puppy training and prevention.

At the first meeting, we discussed proper house training, the basics of lure/reward training and the power of ignoring annoying behaviors. As usual, I then talked a lot about socialization. I explained that this puppy was already behind schedule in her socialization and life experience, and that she had a limited time to easily adapt to the world around her (outside her own home).

This client wrote down everything I said, she ordered the books I suggested and she promised that she would consider bringing the pup to daycare for some dog/dog socialization.

At the next visit, two weeks later, I was told that the owner had been doing some reading and working “a little bit” on the house training. She wasn’t being consistent, and had lots of reason for why she couldn’t succeed. She had done no work in socializing the pup, but said she would still like to “think about” bringing the pup to daycare.

I reiterated the importance of socialization and explained that the pup now had less time to get these experiences in on time. I even offered to provide transportation to get this dog into daycare, and to allow lots of people to meet the dog during our pick-up and drop-off times. I was feeling desperate for the pup, but the owner wasn’t.

Two weeks later, at our third appointment, I was told that the owner had decided that the pup (now an adolescent) was just too much for the owner to handle and would have to be re-homed. My heart sank.

I wasn’t feeling depressed because the dog would need to be re-homed. I’m actually an advocate of re-homing dogs in situations where the owner isn’t committed to the relationship. I was upset that we could have been re-homing a well-socialized, at least half-way trained dog that someone could bring up to speed fairly quickly. Instead, here we were with another under-socialized, unwanted dog who wasn’t house trained and had horrible manners. Do you have any idea how many of those there are?

Either way, we were where we were. So, another client of mine was interested in this pup. They asked me to be present for a meeting between the dogs to find out if they would make good housemates. I should mention here that this pup lived with an older dog of the same breed and they had never had so much as an argument. So, she had a history of living quite well with another dog.

The potential adopters were immediately turned off when they saw the pup come barging out of the car and flailing at the end of the lead like a trout at the end of a fishing line. It just got worse from there.

Without explaining all the details, the pup was aggressive toward the potential adopters' dog and then proceeded to jump my dog. I had to physically remove her mouth from my dog's face. Luckily, there were no serious injuries.

Amazingly, the client then said, “I guess she should come to daycare and get socialized before I re-home her, shouldn’t she?”

I told her the dog wasn't safe for daycare and referred her to a trainer who works with aggressive behavior. I really didn't want to talk about it anymore, as I was angry now.

I was angry because this didn’t have to happen. I was angry because the dog was now going to suffer for that which it couldn’t prevent on its own. I was angry because it's still such a struggle to get people into puppy classes. I was angry because even if this dog would have behaved this way around other dogs despite early socialization, we at least would have recognized the problem earlier. I was angry because this happens over and over again, every single day.

And as long as it does, I will say over and over again, to every dog owner I meet, every single day, anywhere, anytime…socialization, socialization, socialization!